Mark Penn "Cooks the Books" on Bloggers

05/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Lane Hudson Writer, Blogger, Consultant and Activist in DC

Mark Penn has commentary up at the Wall Street Journal. Good heavens. For 1250 words, it sure is an intellectually lazy piece of crap.

Penn attempts to assert this:

In America today, there are almost as many people making their living as bloggers as there are lawyers. Already more Americans are making their primary income from posting their opinions than Americans working as computer programmers or firefighters.

The way he arrives at this assertion is the craziest math I've seen come from Penn since he thought the Democratic Presidential Primaries were winner take all. I'm beginning to think his strategy skills and math skills are on par with each other.

Here is his stream of numbers:

The best studies we can find say we are a nation of over 20 million bloggers, with 1.7 million profiting from the work, and 452,000 of those using blogging as their primary source of income. That's almost 2 million Americans getting paid by the word, the post, or the click -- whether on their site or someone else's.

Let's see if we can make sense of that mess. The source for 'over 20 million bloggers' is here. It conflicts with another source he links to that says 'over 12 million American adults currently maintain a blog. That site is also the source of his claim that 1.7 million are profiting from the work. However, the statistic he is referencing actually says:

1.7 million American adults list making money as one of the reasons they blog.

The reason I buy a lottery ticket is to win millions, but that sure as heck doesn't mean it's happening. What a disingenuous effort.

The claim that 452,000 are using blogging as their primary source of income appears to be the biggest math trick of all in this cluster f@$&. Penn links to MediaBistro at this point, but that number appears nowhere. But, if you take the 'over 20 million bloggers' number referenced above from an unrelated study (22.6 million is the actual number there) and divide it by 2%, VOILA! The magic number of 452,000 appears. That's how Penn asserts that nearly half a million people earn a living solely by blogging. Fuzzy math at its best. Mark Math, perhaps?

The State of the Blogosphere by Technorati seems to me to be the best snapshot of the demographics that Penn is so desperately trying to take command of. The broadest snapshot it captures for this purpose is of US bloggers surveyed from a sample size of 550 that are registered and monitored by Technorati. In that sample, median annual investment is reported at $80 and the median average revenue at $200. While that may be 'profitable', it's hardly gonna support more than a weekend drinking binge.

Technorati offers this insight on the data from their survey (emphasis added):

The majority of bloggers we surveyed currently have advertising on their blogs. Among those with advertising, the mean annual investment in their blog is $1,800, but it's paying off. The mean annual revenue is $6,000 with $75K+ in revenue for those with 100,000 or more unique visitors per month. Note: median investment and revenue (which is listed below) is significantly lower. They are also earning CPMs on par with large publishers.

For those who need a refresher in math terms (ahem, Mr. Penn!), but failed to use the google to jog the memory:

The "mean" is the "average" you're used to, where you add up all the numbers and then divide by the number of numbers. The "median" is the "middle" value in the list of numbers. To find the median, your numbers have to be listed in numerical order, so you may have to rewrite your list first.

So, when the median (middle) revenue is significantly lower than the mean (average) revenue in your data, it suggests fewer significantly higher values that skew the overall average. The flip side of that would be a far greater number of lower lower values to account for the difference in the value of the median and the mean.

Given the broader perspective that Mr. Penn either doesn't get or didn't take the time to understand, his overall thesis that blogging is 'America's newest profession' is overstated and premature. In his commentary, there is an inset that suggests the number of 452,000 bloggers came from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It didn't. Instead, he had to hyper-extrapolate the numbers to support his argument.

As someone who has a strong belief in bloggers and citizen journalists, I'd love to believe that there were nearly half a million of them earning a full time living in this 'new' phenomenon. It's just simply not true. We will move closer to the reality that Mr. Penn attempts to create out of thin air when those who spend advertising dollars realize the value of including blogs in their ad buys. Instead of creating an alternate reality, Mr. Penn would better service the blogosphere by advancing that notion.

Instead, he may have done a disservice by countering an ongoing effort by bloggers to win over advertisers. As someone whose political credentials have been questioned because of not taking the time to pay attention to important details that could have made his client President of the United States, he'd do well to take the time to properly understand the context of the subject he is writing on.